The Cushy Connections Between The Walrus And The Liberal Party Of Canada

The time has come, The Walrus said, for talk of sunny ways.

A series of connections between the Liberal Party of Canada and the Walrus Foundation over the past two years may be affecting the standards and thrust of the journalism at the charity’s titular magazine.

These connections include: Liberal candidate (now MP) Seamus O’Regan heading the publication’s Educational Review Committee, charged with vetting editorial content, during the last federal election; the addition of new party-affiliated members to the foundation’s board of directors; the hiring of former Justin Trudeau ghostwriter Jonathan Kay and subsequent spate of pro-Trudeau articles during his tenure; and the Heritage Ministry’s approval of multiple hard-to-obtain Canada 150 grants.

The Walrus is a unique case of charitable journalism in Canada, and with the federal government now reassessing its role in supporting Canadian media — and considering the Shattered Mirror report’s recommendation for more such charitable projects — how The Walrus has or hasn’t met its obligations suddenly becomes relevant.

Seamus O’Regan

Before, during, and after the 2015 federal election, Liberal candidate-turned-MP Seamus O’Regan held a series of high-level positions at the organization.

The former CTV broadcaster joined the Walrus Foundation’s board of directors in January 2014 and stayed on it after winning the Liberal nomination in the Newfoundland and Labrador riding of St. John’s South–Mount Pearl in late September of that year. He also became chair of the publication’s Educational Review Committee (ERC), first appearing in that role on the masthead of its June 2015 issue, after already campaigning for the Liberals for months.

Although The Walrus’s board is not directly involved in overseeing the development of content, the ERC is supposed to be. The committee was established when the foundation acquired charity status in 2005 — at the tail end of Paul Martin’s short-lived government — to ensure that the magazine’s journalism met a sufficient educational standard to be deemed a charitable activity. According to The Walrus’s charitable-obligations document filed with the Canada Revenue Agency, the ERC has “the responsibility of vetting all new proposed editorial content … and insisting on certain types of direction.” Articles that would not count as educational include those “on subjects of dubious useful or practical value,” “light-hearted or humour pieces,” and those “that present only an author’s opinion.”

O’Regan remained on the masthead as ERC chair until the end of 2015, after his and his party’s victory in the October 19th election. He is still listed as a member of the National Advisory Council, a body within the foundation that is also responsible for evaluating editorial content.

Other board members include: Chima Nkemdirim, chief of staff to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who was added in early 2015 — a year after Trudeau (unsuccessfully) courted the “unabashed” supporter to run as a candidate; Jodi Butts, spouse of the prime minister’s best friend and principal secretary Gerald, who joined in mid-2016; and “long-time Liberal insider” Helen Burstyn, who was elevated to chair around the same time.

(It would be remiss not to mention that there are some Conservative connections, too, like current ERC Chair Karen Prentice — widow of late Conservative politician Jim — and board member Andrew Pringle, formerly a major fundraiser for Kellie Leitch’s leadership campaign.)

Beyond his political involvement with the Liberal party, O’Regan is also part of Trudeau’s inner circle, and is godfather to at least one of Gerald and Jodi Butts’ children. More recently, he and his husband attended the prime minister’s controversial family trip over the holiday season to the Aga Khan’s private island getaway.

Throughout O’Regan’s 2015 stint as the ostensible head vetter of The Walrus’s journalism — while also being a Walrus Foundation board member and Liberal candidate/MP — the political content published by the magazine ramped up.

Shortly after O’Regan joined the board, The Walrus published “Justin and Gerald” in its May 2014 issue — a gushing piece about Trudeau’s “whip smart” best friend and top aide Butts. In the October 2015 issue, The Walrus published “Number Cruncher: Coffee and Quantum Physics with the Liberals’ Digital Savant,” an effusive piece about Trudeau’s national field strategist.

But the most pro-Liberal pieces have been published exclusively on The Walrus’s website, where the publication appears to be placing more emphasis as the magazine’s paid subscriptions continue to decline.

Jonathan Kay

On September 29, 2015, new-ish editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay (who’d been hired away from the National Post the previous fall) rhapsodized about the Liberal leader in a first-person essay titled “The Justin Trudeau I Can’t Forget.”

In the piece, Kay described the time he spent with Trudeau while working as a freelance assistant on his memoir, Common Ground, in late 2013.

“Aside from interviewing Trudeau himself over many days, I spoke with the Liberal leader’s relatives, colleagues, and close friends,” Kay wrote. “During these discussions, I leafed through albums of old photos, laughed at funny stories, and watched a few people cry. The experience felt intimate. I had to remind myself that these people were not my friends, even if they treated me in a friendly way.”

According to Kay’s article, he was able to preserve his objectivity in his journalism because “Justin Trudeau was just another paycheque.” Yet his piece includes passages such as this description of the party leader answering a student’s question about his favourite Canadian bands: “Moving his legs in metronome to his words, he ticked off some in English, and then French acts to match, throwing in capsule summaries of their style. It was amazing to see.”

Before election day, The Walrus also published such pieces as “Stephen Harper’s Hair Problem” and “Doubting Thomas: Does Mulcair’s NDP stand for anything?”

Post-election content under Kay’s stewardship and/or O’Regan’s ostensible oversight included: “Between Two Stitches: A brief history of Canadian sexuality through Trudeau sweaters”; “The Nicest Guy in the Room: Justin Trudeau is nothing like the caricature his opponents created — and that’s why he won”; “No One Needs the Federal NDP: Canada is a two-party country. The NDP faithful just haven’t realized it yet”; “Climate Prom: At this year’s Globe sustainability conference, Trudeau brings a new energy”; and former Postmedia columnist and now Prime Minister’s Office staffer Michael Den Tendt’s “Sunny Ways v. the Dark Side: Is Justin Trudeau Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader — or, Lord help us, the insufferable parvenu Kylo Ren?”

Despite the odd semi-critical piece in the mix, the overwhelming narrative of the magazine has been glowing praise for the PM, such as in senior editor Jessica Johnson’s December 2016 cover story “Welcome to Canlandia: As the United States descends into a vicious culture war, Trudeau’s Canada has become a beacon of tolerance and, dare we say, coolness.”

An excerpt:

The King of Canlandia is Justin Trudeau. Since the election last November, he has captured the world’s imagination with a series of civic gestures such as an overt parade of the diversity in his cabinet (“Because it’s 2015”) and with his welcome of 35,000 Syrian refugees. There were also those images of the prime minister in his shirtsleeves, holding the peacock yoga pose at the edge of a desk; striding out with the presidents of the United States and Mexico (the unfortunately named “Three Amigos” conference); and, yes, the shirtless photobomb of a tourist’s vacation shot — although that had more of the feel of a paparazzi photo than a staged political message. Marvel released a comic featuring the prime minister in boxing gear. Canlandia had found its leading man — or, as one of my friends put it in archly Canadian terms, “He’s like our general manager and our mascot.”

The article came out the same month that Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly signed off on a $52,000 Canada 150 Fund grant for the Walrus Talks, and several months after the foundation was awarded a different Canada 150 grant of $650,000 for the same thing. (These were in addition to its annual publishing grant of $291,850, as well as contributions from 30 corporate and institutional sponsors and partners supporting the Talks’ National Tour.)

According to Joly’s press secretary, Pierre-Olivier Herbert, the Canada 150 Fund had thousands of applications and billions of dollars in asks, of which only a small fraction were approved.

Yet the foundation received two sizeable grants from the highly sought-after fund.

Herbert adds in a subsequent interview, however, that nothing gets to the Heritage minister’s office for approval if it’s not recommended by the department beforehand. “So in terms of what we approve as projects, even supplements, it goes through a vetting process — non-political vetting process — with the department first,” he says in a phone call.

But was it appropriate for a Liberal candidate, then MP, and family friend of Justin Trudeau to have the formative responsibility of “vetting all new proposed editorial content” for the magazine? Was it appropriate for the charity to hire a Trudeau ghostwriter as its editor-in-chief less than a year before an election?

CANADALAND repeatedly reached out to O’Regan at his Ottawa office; despite a staffer’s assurance of an imminent response, we have yet to hear back. We also reached out to Kay, but he referred such questions to publisher Shelley Ambrose, who did not respond to our requests.

The masthead of the June 2015 issue, on which Seamus O’Regan made his debut as ERC chair.

The Educational Review Committee

It is, however, unclear whether the ERC still even performs its role of vetting all content as stipulated in the charitable agreement to ensure that at least 70 per cent of the magazine is educational in nature.

Describing the ERC’s function during his tenure, Ken Alexander, Walrus editor-in-chief from 2003-08, told us, “If there was something that we were publishing that was gratuitous, or whatever, the Educational Review Committee would highlight that and say, ‘This isn’t good enough.’ [Presenting to the ERC] was something that we did with every issue of the magazine.”

But the ERC’s current vice chair, University of Calgary professor Mark Migotti, says the members now only review content after production and that this changed about two years ago. He doesn’t know whether or not the chair — now Prentice — still vets proposed editorial content, or did during O’Regan’s tenure.

Kay maintains that the ERC still plays an active role. “They are in regular communication with us,” he told us by email. “I’m not the one who is tasked with liaison work with ERC, but I know those who do, and the back and forth is frequent.”

However, one member of the ERC, Concordia University professor Darren Wershler, tells us that he was dissatisfied with his “minimal involvement with the magazine” and that his “relationship with actual editorial staff at The Walrus remains rarefied.”

“I have never seen upcoming content,” he adds. “But this may vary among ERC members, and I can’t speak for anyone else.”

If the ERC is no longer vetting content, it would be another strike against the Walrus Foundation. Over the last year and a half, CANADALAND has documented the discontinuation of programs agreed upon under the charitable status agreement; allegedly stealing a freelancer’s pitch; alleged workplace abuse; the discontinuation of a paid internship program and its subsequent reinstatement after the organization was found in violation of labour laws; and overstating falling circulation numbers in grant applications.

Oh wait, there’s more

On top of all of the above, our analysis has shown that educational content within the magazine appears to have fallen below the 70 per cent minimum set out under the charitable status agreement.

For instance, the 2015 winter double issue is 76 pages from front to back and has a 58.5:41.5 ratio of content to ads, which the document states should be counted toward the non-educational tally.

In many other issues in 2016, the ad content surpassed the 30 per cent threshold, including the April 2016 issue with its 45 pages of educational content (only 26 of which were actual text) and 31 pages of ads out of a total 76 pages. (As Alexander put it in a phone interview, “There’s not much there.”)

Although the Canada Revenue Agency has not reprimanded The Walrus, and audits are not disclosed to the public, CRA media relations representative Patrick Samson says the agency generally takes “an education-first approach where possible” when a charity is found in non-compliance.

All of which prompts the question: If The Walrus foreshadows the type of content future charitable journalism outfits will produce in Canada, would they be worth getting behind?

Correction (4/12/17, 9:00 p.m.): Due to an editing error, this piece originally stated that Jonathan Kay had “been hired away from the National Post in the spring” of 2015. But while Kay first appeared as editor-in-chief on the Walrus masthead at that time, he in fact started there the previous December. Similarly, a reference to Kay having been hired “months before an election” has been amended.

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